For almost the whole of its duration, the story the director tells is extremely well crafted. Sono mingles fantasy and reality and one person's identity with that of another. Mitsuko and her mother, for instance, seem often to merge into a single individual so that it is not clear whether they are two persons or just one. The result is a narrative in which the viewer, though aware that he is only seeing some part of reality, is never certain which part of the tale is true and which is dream or deception. I will grant that Strange Circus's last act does get somewhat contrived and does tag on a few too many twists and surprises (along with so much exposition that I was reminded of the ending of an episode of Scooby-Doo). Fortunately, the movie is never so flawed that it fails to be intriguing. In fact, the viewer is almost certain to be enthralled by Strange Circus from its beginning until its end.
Of course, the frequently unsettling themes that the director has included ensure that the viewer will be both so horrified and so disgusted that he is captivated by the tale. In particular, the sexual abuse Mitsuko is subjected to by her father, as well as the physical abuse her mother inflicts upon her, are both shown in such ways that the viewer feels as though he is actually experiencing the nastiness of the girl's existence. The first act of the film, in which these are presented in great detail, is, consequently, unlikely to be forgotten by the viewer and so gives the entire film a dark and affecting tone.
What is more, Strange Circus is consistently beguiling visually. The director reveals on the screen one sumptuous, bizarre, or disturbing image after another, all of which, even when repugnant, are beautifully realized. From its earliest scenes, centered on a lavish circus-like stage performance, to Taeko's ornate office, which looks like a wizard's lair, to countless other odd visions, Strange Circus is alive with such a variety of things that are likely to catch the viewer's eye that it is hard to imagine anyone not being entranced by the film.
Happily, the performances of the leads are as good as are the movie's other elements. All are exceptional. Not only do the actors manage to create intriguing characters, but they keep these fluid enough so that the moviegoer, though sympathizing with them, and finding himself caught up in their lives, is never certain about exactly who has done what or even who each person really is.
Strange Circus is a fascinating film.
Review by Keith Allen
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